Nadine Godwin – Author Interview

What is your most recent book? Tell us a bit about it.

Travia: The Ultimate Book of Travel Trivia. The name tells the tale, and it was meant to. It is a collection of close to 700 trivia items that have some connection with travel. It includes a wide variety of topics, including well-known people, events and tourist attractions.

I considered it my challenge to insert those topics but with new or eyebrow-raising information about each. For example, everyone may know the Eiffel Tower was once the world’s tallest structure, but not everyone may be aware it was built with the idea it would be torn down 20 years later. Or, everyone may know Charles Lindbergh was the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic, but not that he was the 68h person to fly across the Atlantic nonstop.

The book, I believe, is an entertaining read for anyone who travels or who is interested in things like the history of travel or who is just a lover of trivia. It is a particularly good gift item for anyone in those categories.

Tell us something about yourself.

I am a journalist, and I have been a travel journalist since 1969. In that time, most of which was spent working for a trade newspaper called Travel Weekly, I have written news stories about airlines, cruise lines, hotels, travel agencies — basically any entity that sells travel, and I have traveled widely and written numerous stories based on those experiences. To this day, I also keep personal diaries during the longer trips — a habit originated at the behest of my mother when I was a child on family vacations. Those diaries are certainly good for the memory…. and they acted, on occasion, as tip sheets for my book of travel trivia.

As to my earlier background, I was born on a farm in Iowa, a place that had no electricity, no running water and no indoor bathrooms. My father’s tractor was two horses. We got electricity and Dad got a gas-powered tractor before I entered school at a one-room schoolhouse a mile away, but we did not have the running water or bathroom for another two or three years. I note that, in adulthood, I have taken very long flights to far-flung places in order to visit people who have no electricity, no running water and no indoor bathrooms and whose farmers use draft animals — or no assistance from animals at all. On that last point, it is downright painful to see women bent double planting rice by hand.

What inspired you to write this book?

A colleague in the travel industry suggested we do this book together. He asked if I would prepare a few sample items for a book proposal. I did, but I did not stop until we had a book about a year and a half later. In a way, I wrote the book for my own amusement because trivia can be fun. I did not wind up with a co-author.

How did you publish this book?

My industry colleague and I partnered on this project, in that I wrote the book and he sought a publisher. When that did not work, initially, we self-published in the spring of 2006. The good part about that was it let us test the market for the book and I had a chance to rework some things and to add a few things to later printings. The current book, with a “real” publisher, is a redesigned version and I have updated the content where that was appropriate. The publisher is a small publishing house in Connecticut called The Intrepid Traveler. As the name suggests, its focus is entirely on travel-related publishing.

How did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did you get started?

To a degree, this was one of life’s accidents. As a kid, I liked to write, and I even tried some fiction that I showed to no one. In reality, I did not know what I wanted to do when I grew up, but when I was 16, I won a local essay contest and thought then, maybe I could make a living with words. So, I majored in journalism at the University of Iowa.

What do you believe is the hardest part of writing?

Answering this question! Occasionally, I can’t make the right words take shape, but mostly, I don’t think writing is that difficult.

How did you do research for your book?

I referred to books I own and to brochures or other materials distributed by tourist offices. I looked at the Web, and I looked into my own memory and my large collection of personal trip diaries. Of course, with the Web, my memory and my diaries, possible items had to be double checked depending on the ultimate source. Actually, I double checked some things that I found in previously published books, too, and not everything withstood that test…. THAT was a little disheartening!!

As to the Web, I generally relied on information about American Airlines, for example, if it came from American’s Web site, or information about the Titanic, if it came from the Cunard Line site (because Cunard bought the Titanic’s owner, the White Star Line, so Cunard owns that history). I figured any company or any tourist office should be able to talk about its own history and characteristics reliably — and I could defend myself using such sources.

I called the National Geographic Society asking what sources it relied on for facts about world geography. I got an answer, but was also advised that geographic data such as elevations, square mileages and geographic coordinates are not cut-and-dried matters. I contacted some government sources in the U.S. and Britain. For example, I relied on the CIA World Factbook and U.S. census figures. I turned to museums, also to relevant travel trade organizations. I wrote to or talked to authors of books on things like early aviation and ghost towns. I also hunted down authors of Web articles that looked valid, but I needed to be sure.

What was the hardest trivia item of all to confirm?

It took forever to get information on the first hotel minibars, and even at that, I did not got as much detail as I would have liked. I did determine, however, that the first were installed in Europe, well before they appeared in North American hotels. I finally found one person who had answers based on his own experience. From him, I learned the first hotel minibars in North America were installed in 1978 in a Four Seasons property in D.C. This wasn’t just news to me; this was news to Four Seasons, too.

Have you visited all the places and seen all the attractions mentioned in the book? Have you tried all the activities?

No and no.

Of course, many items reflect personal experiences and resulting reports written for Travel Weekly.

I have tasted some of the odd foods mentioned — I chewed betel nut in Indonesia and sipped kumyss in Outer Mongolia, but, after getting a good whiff of the thing, I turned down the 1,000-year-old egg in China. Those eggs are about three months old, but they smell a LOT older.

Some items were inspired by palaces and cathedrals I’ve seen, … also, by the Valley of the Roses, torture museums, underground towns in Turkey, anti-god museums in the former Soviet Union, covered bridges (30 miles down the road from my birthplace). I have visited caravansaris in Israel, funduks in Yemen, … watched orangutans and giraffes at play, … seen the zebroids in Kenya, … stayed in Dayak longhouses in East Malaysia and yurts in Outer Mongolia, … walked into or stayed at some of the grand old hotels, like the Oriental in Bangkok or the Peninsula in Hong Kong.

As for the activities, I Iove to ski cross country, but I don’t bungee jump, thank you, and I have no interest in gambling or golf although I have seen lots of casinos and golf courses, and they were entertaining fodder for this book.

Even at that, there has not been time to see and do all the things I would like to see and do.

What is the best advice you could give other writers about writing or publishing?

Watch your language. By that, I mean use proper grammar — despite the fact remarkable numbers of readers don’t know what that is.

I just finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point” and Michael Pollan’s “The Botany of Desire.” Both books are full of enlightening information and insights, and yet, both — particularly “The Tipping Point” — frequently make the same grammatical error: using the plural pronoun “they” to refer to singular antecedents. It is a common error in speech, but not quite so common in written materials, and it interfered with my reading pleasure. I was surprised at the authors and their editors.
I have seen self-published books with much worse and more frequent errors of grammar and spelling of all kinds. These were very readable books with compelling stories, but such mistakes are clutter that gets between a writer and the reader — even when that reader is not, like me, a lifelong professional editor and the daughter of an English teacher.

What are you doing to promote your book?

Initially, my partner and I used my extensive database of travel professionals and successfully promoted the book as a gift item in e-mailed messages. It was great to make sales of multiple books, and a couple of times we sold in lots of more than 100. (We also learned the hard way not to extend credit for purchases of multiple books.)

Now, with a publisher, the book is more widely distributed. Also, I recently retired from my day job, so I am making myself available for appearances, as appropriate, for speech-making opportunities accompanied by book selling and signing sessions.

Where can readers learn more about you and your book?

The book is sold at Amazon.com and IntrepidTraveler.com. There is more information about both the book and me at IntrepidTraveler.com, meaning from the publisher’s site. Googling my name gets stories about me, to my amazement. My e-mail is nngodwin@aol.com.